No more. Urban areas, in particular, tend to have a dangerous combination of older buildings, less money to upgrade them and concentrated heat. Designed to maximize space in crowded environments, urban schools often lack green space and shade. Asphalt often covers their playgrounds and other open spaces, radiating heat during the summer.
The GAO pointed to a Michigan school district where 60 percent of schools lack air conditioning and extreme heat has forced the district to change its schedule. It also cited a Maryland district that botched its air conditioning retrofit in some schools, causing moisture and condensation problems that officials estimate could cost $1 million per building to correct.
Heat inhibits learning. In a study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior in 2020, researchers found that students scored worse on standardized exams for every additional day of 80-degree or higher temperatures. The study also found that in the United States, being exposed to higher temperatures mainly impaired the learning of Black and Latino students, who are less likely to have air conditioning at school and at home.
Many cities have seen a rising number of days when the temperature hit 90 degrees or higher in May and June, when schools are operating, according to a Washington Post analysis. Philadelphia averaged four such days in 1970; now the figure is eight. In Baltimore, it went from six to 10; in Denver, from six to 11; and in Cleveland, from one to four. Portland, Ore., now averages three days over 90, up from one in 1970.
A decade ago, school districts canceled schools for heat an average of three or four days per year, according to research by Paul Chinowsky, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado who led a study last year of schools and rising temperatures for the firm Resilient Analytics, which consults for governments and NGOs. That figure has about doubled, to six or seven days annually.
Chinowsky’s study also estimated that by 2025, more than 13,700 schools will need to install air conditioning, and an additional 13,500 will need to upgrade existing systems. Nationally, that amounts to about 1 in 4 public schools.
In New York and New Jersey, teachers unions are pushing for state laws to address what they say are intolerable classroom temperatures. A bill that’s been floating around Albany for several years would require schools that hit 82 degrees to take steps to relieve extreme heat, and a classroom that reached 88 degrees couldn’t be used. In New Jersey, lawmakers have been trying for a decade to pass a bill requiring districts to maintain comfortable classroom temperatures.
“It is an investment we simply cannot afford to put off any longer,” said Steven Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association. “Go into any 7-Eleven in New Jersey, and you’ll see that it is air-conditioned. If we can do that in the places that we run into for five minutes to buy Slurpees and lottery tickets, we can do it in the schools where our children spend hours every day learning.”
In New Jersey, rising temperatures also have made it increasingly difficult for school districts to keep students in classrooms for the 180 days that state law requires, said Elisabeth Ginsburg, the executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, an advocacy group representing about 100 districts in the state.
“Teaching in these conditions is untenable. Learning in these conditions is unbearable. We can’t allow whether or not your school is equipped for AC to dictate the quality of your education,” she wrote.
And in D.C., city council member Robert C. White Jr., a candidate for mayor, voiced concern about the heat’s impact on schools. “[P]arents and teachers are sending us SOS tweets about hot classrooms & broken HVAC systems,” he tweeted Wednesday. “It is unacceptable that our students, teachers & administrators are dealing with this.”
If it’s steamy outside of Erica Weisfelner’s classroom in Farmingdale, N.Y., it’s a safe bet that it’s at least 80 degrees inside her cinder-block walls. The elementary school art teacher’s un-air-conditioned room on Long Island is swampy this time of year. Sheets of paper stick together. Oil pastels turn to mush in her student’s hands. The Wikki Stix projects made of yarn and wax melt together.
Before the pandemic encouraged social distancing, it was common for teachers to combine classes, packing dozens of students into the coolest rooms. Closing schools or dismissing halfway through the day is a last resort, but it’s becoming more common, said Ginsburg, of the Garden State Coalition of Schools.
Valerie Wilson, the business administrator for Newark’s public schools, said there’s little public understanding of the high costs and logistical obstacles that districts such as hers would have to overcome to air-condition all their schools. Most of Newark’s 63 school buildings were built in the 19th century, she said, and the majority of classrooms are not air-conditioned. The oldest school, Lafayette Street School, predates Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.
In White Plains, N.Y., Cayne Letizia, a member of the school board, recalls parents coming to him five years ago concerned about the heat and demanding the district add air conditioning. Their concern: It was hot and, with climate change, set to get hotter. Some offered to pay or raise money for window units, he said.
It wasn’t that simple. Schools needed to have their electrical capacity upgraded to handle the additional load. At first, the district had funding only to cool select portions of its buildings. Now, using a combination of federal, state and local dollars, the district is preparing to install air conditioning throughout its schools, Letizia said.
The district needed voter approval to use capital funds for the project, he said, and older voters would often note that they never had air conditioning when they were in school. Why was it needed now? Officials had to explain that it is getting hotter.